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Fantasia Obscura: ‘The Shoes of the Fisherman’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, though, you find a film made with such lack of faith in itself that you end up with an epic fail…

The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)
Distributed by: MGM
Directed by: Michael Anderson

MGM wasn’t only a studio for big musicals; they also made an impact with their religious-themed epics:

They may not have released as many such pics as 20th Century Fox did, but with films like King of Kings, Quo Vadis?, and Ben-Hur, you got some of the more memorable spectacles from them. You would get sweeping stories, often set in Rome, involving witnesses to the divine and miraculous. There’d be big names doing big things during the height of the Roman Empire, during a time when a new faith from Judea was starting to make inroads.

It’s hard to imagine that someone might look at these films and wondered if when you make such a religious-themed epic, that instead of setting it many centuries in the past, you have it take place in the here and now.

Whoever that person was would come to regret their musings…

We open after the credits with a long shot on the vast white terrain of Siberia. Slowly we come to focus on a caterpillar-tracked vehicle, its large red star on the hood proudly representing its Soviet owners. The vehicle drives on to a prison camp/open mining pit where they request that Political Prisoner #103592R report to the commandant. We watch as that prisoner (Anthony Quinn) quits wielding together pipes and heads off in the vehicle out of there…

We get a quick scene change to American TV news reporter George Faber (David Janssen) going to the Vatican to meet with Cardinal Rinaldi (Vittorio De Sica). The Cardinal offers Faber an exclusive, provided he plays by their rules on how to release the details…

At which point we find out who Political Prisoner #103592R was: Archbishop Kiril Pavlovich Lakota, the Russian Catholic cleric who had been ministering to the Russian faithful as the Metropolitan Archbishop of Lviv-

Boy, did THAT not age well…

Archbishop Kiril is met by Soviet Premier Piotr Ilyich Kamenev (Laurence Olivier), whom we find through their conversation had been Kiril’s interrogator at Lubyanka Prison twenty years before. Kamenev has struck a deal with the Vatican: The Soviets are sending Kiril out of the country, though not for the obvious reasons of making a humanitarian gesture-infused piece of propaganda:

The Soviets are worried about the famine next door in the People’s Republic of China. The country’s leader, Chairman Peng (Burt Kuouk), is threatening a major incursion into SE Asia, which could balloon into a general worldwide thermonuclear confrontation. Their hope is that having an inside man at the Vatican, that they’d be able to…

Okay, they kinda mumble through why they’re sending him, but ANYways…

Soon Kiril’s at the Holy See, where he has an audience with the Pope (John Gielgud) along with Cardinals Rinaldi and Leone (Leo McKern). We find that for his own reasons, His Eminence is promoting Kiril to the College of Cardinals, assigned to the Vatican Office of State.

On the one hand, Kiril’s not sure if he can handle such an honor, preferring some simpler assignment, like an out-of-the-way small parish. On the other, he’s already made friends with a future colleague that His Eminence had sent to Moscow to fetch him, the fascinating Father David Telemond (Oskar Werner). Telemond serves in the Vatican State office as a way to keep him too busy to write heresies in his unpublishable books, but is otherwise charming and takes a mutual like to Kiril as well.

This arrangement doesn’t last long, however. The Pope dies, and the College of Cardinals has to perform its most important duty: They must unanimously elect one of their own to be the new head of the Catholic Church.

There are multiple rounds of balloting, which are split between Rinaldi and Leone and lead nowhere. It’s in between the balloting that the Cardinals get to discuss the state of the world (while politicking for the position), during which time Kiril shares some of his experiences in Siberia:

Ultimately, the conclave chooses Kiril, and the world is excited as the first non-Italian Pope in centuries ascends. He takes the name Pope Kiril as he assumes the leadership of the Catholic Church, just as the Intermission comes in the film…

The movie takes on many of the aspects of other religious-themed epics from the studio. This includes playing some of the musical score as an introduction while patrons settle into their seats before the curtain rises, a mid-picture intermission with outplay score selections, a run time of almost three hours, and a ponderous, laborious score by Alex North that takes itself too seriously.

In contrast to the film’s overbearing score, the script doesn’t bother to take its characters or us seriously at all. In addition to Father Telemond’s heresy inquiry, we also have as side plots Faber’s efforts to balance time between his wife Ruth (Barbara Jefford) and his mistress Chiara (Rosemary Dexter), the competition between Telemond and Leone for the new pope’s ear, and some unspoken history between Kiril and Kamenev. All of these pop up and go away with barely any bearing on the main plot, Kiril’s elevation, or even on the minor plot about the PRC getting ready to start World War III.

In all likelihood, this would have frustrated anyone familiar with the source material, the 1961 novel by Morris West. In the book, all of the minor characters from the film actually play bigger roles and have meaningful interactions with Kiril. The final script that was drafted by John Patrick and James Kennaway, though, gives them nothing to do but pad out the film’s bloated runtime. (At one point, West was part of the screenwriting team, but when Anderson allowed the actors to go off-script during Telemond’s hearings, he quit in frustration with their nonsensical babble ending up in the final cut instead of the novelist’s considered arguments.)

Anderson’s oversight of the project proved that he was no Cecil B. DeMille. The film only finds its way a few times towards the end, but never builds momentum. Much of the on-location shooting around Rome feels more like a travelogue than a testament. Added to that was the Vatican’s refusal to allow shooting within the Holy See, meaning that for crowd scenes at St. Peter’s, Anderson had to insert newsreel footage taken during Paul VI’s elevation, which doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the film.

Releasing a religious-themed epic-esque film at a time when movie audiences were looking for new voices and views (as the studios loosened their production controls) was an act of faith that didn’t have a prayer. And because it was a modern set piece, the audience for Ben-Hur was unlikely to give it a try. Reviews were unkind, and box office was so dismal that Robert O’Brien, MGM’s president who helped bring out 2001: A Space Odyssey, resigned when the company took a huge financial hit after releasing both this and Ice Station Zebra.

The film didn’t generate hate from the audience so much as disinterest. Despite the cast’s efforts at trying to rise above the script and direction, moviegoers decided not to pay attention to the film, a wanna-be religious-themed epic that simply failed to draw enough attention to itself. On the whole, audiences just shrugged and ignored it.

That same audience for the most part likewise failed to pay attention the year before when Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow got elevated to the College of Cardinals…


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